Unknown Pleasures Chapter 15: The Fashionable Afterparty

A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.

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Chic – Take if Off [Atlantic 1981]

If Chic had been really smart, they’d have split for England as soon as Disco ended. Let’s face it; they had more fans in the UK [where Disco never became a dirty word] than they ever did here in the States. When Real People followed the top 5 Risque by peaking at #30, the writing should have been on the wall. While a British residency probably would have meant Chic brain trust Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards wouldn’t have had the huge production successes that came their way in the Big 80s, it really is thrilling to think what could have happened if they’d spent some time in Manchester  or Leeds or Birmingham operating in the post-punk scene they were a huge influence on.

take-it-off-51044f026d796Take It Off often sounds like Rodgers and Edwards were actually thinking about it; The lush uptown disco sound has been replaced by a starker, earth-toned funk that has more to do with the Mudd Club than Studio 54 [remember that before Chic hit big, Rodgers and Edwards played in a punk band].  Even the cover art indicates a polarity shift:  The high-end studio portraiture of the first four albums is gone, replaced by a New Wave inspired rendering of the band by legendary cover artist Tony Wright.  All it needs is the Two-Tone Rudeboy of the [English] Beat Girl to round out it’s street cred.  

Along with their own record, Rodgers and Edwards were producing a solo album for Blondie’s Deborah Harry and an album for easy-listening legend Johnny Mathis at the time; Koo Koo, the Harry record went top 30 in the US while Mathis’ album was never released. No telling if the Chic record was in production before the Mathis situation, but it’s hard not to think that success with a new wave chick was writing on the wall for them, as Take it Off often sounds like the record the B52s or Missing Persons would have made if they could.

Just like their biggest hit “Le Freak,”  Take it Off opens with shouts, as singers Alfa Anderson and Fonzi Thornton practically jump the gun in “Stage Fright.”  The Chic Strings we’ve become accustomed to are gone, replaced by spiky bare bones funk and horns that weave and jab at the singers. It’s almost like Rodgers and Edwards had been to see Defunkt or the Contortions before writing the song.  The stripped down funk continues into the second track, “Burn Hard” which is basically a Bernard Edwards Mission Statement both lyrically and sonically.  The further into side one, the more Chic pare down and streamline their sound, tossing ornaments and flourishes [including lyrics and vocals] overboard and turning up the low-end frequencies. It’s easy to think the reductive process gave rise to the album title itself, although they could have called it Chic in Dub and not been far off the mark.

The dark side of Take it Off peaks on “Flashback” a rumbling, barbed rebuke to a departed lover, with a bristling male vocal [Edwards?  Rogers?] that never rises above a growl but feels like shouting. It’s easy to think this was Rodgers/Edwards’ talking to the people that “loved” them in the Good Times [sic] abandoning them when Disco stopped being the thing:

“Make Love and dance was all we’d do….”

It’s no lost irony a song about sex and dancing is the least danceable song on Take it Off; “Flashback” starts cold and freezes harder, like an Adrian Sherwood remix of a Martin Hannett production.  Edwards’ bass rumbles and threatens, but never offers a trace of release or relief.  A wiry Rodgers’ guitar break is exciting, but cold comfort in the end.  “Flashback” is a solid block of resentment straight out of Manchester.

Side two lightens up a ton, as if Rodgers and Edwards had gotten enough off their chest and decided to show off a pop sense that nobody knew they had [a hidden benefit from hanging out with Debbie Harry and Johnny Mathis maybe?].  “Your Love is Cancelled” is [yet] another kiss off, but is such a jaunty strut, with it’s bright synths and romance-as-ratings-sweeps metaphors it’s impossible to be upset about.  The color scheme brightens even more on “Would You Be My Baby” – more synths, less funk and a sing-along chorus that Bananarama would have loved.  If you listen to it sideways, Take it Off starts to feel like a demo for a new songwriting/production team eager to show off their stuff; which Edwards and Rodgers would eventually become once Chic had run its course.  The title track feels like the kind of track Madonna would be doing in a couple of years’ time – nimble, radio-friendly soft funk with lots of space to fill with her own personality.  “Just out of Reach” feels like a lost track from a Hall & Oates album that never happened, but I wish would have.  The album closes with “Baby Doll” – an uptown instrumental with just enough dirt under its nails to keep the downtown clubbers happy too.  

Take It Off sank like a stone the moment it was released, “peaking” at #124 on the pop charts and #36 on the R&B chart.  Disco was in the process of going undercover [to emerge in white clubs as “dance music”] so radio had no interest in a Studio 54 holdover, no matter how successful they’d been yesterday. Critics who were lavishing praise on cult outfits like Gang of Four, Troublefunk and Fishbone ignored Take It Off, even though it was sonically and conceptually similar to those bands.  Meanwhile, a mysterious, bi-racial, gender-bending whiz kid from Minneapolis was uniting white and black fans with a new sound that would temporarily be known as “punk funk” while a former child prodigy from Gary Indiana was laying plans to take over the world a year later.  It’s no wonder Take it Off, which was merely another great record by a pair of talented pros got lost in the shifting landscape.  Being smart and resourceful, Rodgers and Edwards would go on to storied careers as producers for some of the biggest acts in music, impacting the 80s and 90s even more than they did the late 70s.  Edwards died suddenly of pneumonia in 1996, but Edwards has continued on, handily defeating a case of prostate cancer while climbing back to the top this past year co-owning the charts with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams in 2014 with “Get Lucky” — a song you’ve heard a thousand times unless you spent 2014 living somewhere without electricity.  Today Chic are rightfully revered as ranking officers in several different revolutions and Take It Off is back in print as well.  Good Times, indeed.

NEXT:  Looking For a Bonfire

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